It’s an amusing irony that the genre-bending Unmatched series started life as the strict franchise tie-in Star Wars: Epic Duels. That had a great game engine but vanished when the license expired, only to be reborn as an anything-goes tactical battler that pitched two legendary characters from across cultures against each other.
Later boxes added characters from film, such as Jurassic Park, and TV such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer. And they’re all cross-compatible, so it’s quite possible to have Bruce Lee facing off against Bigfoot. Now classic Victorian literature has been added to the mix with the gothic stylings of Unmatched: Cobble & Fog (see it at Amazon).
Box and What’s Inside
If you like big, pretty game boards when you open a box, Unmatched: Cobble & Fog will, like all its peers, offer an initial disappointment. The board is small, a series of interconnected circles printed over some drab background art. It’s double-sided, though, convenient and functional. It in no way prepares you for what’s underneath.
Because beyond that, the components are great. There are four miniatures for the characters in this set: Dracula, Sherlock Holmes, Dr. Jekyll and The Invisible Man. They’re reasonable sculpts, improved by being good, hard plastic and coming already ink washed to bring out the detail and depth.
Each character also has a health dial and a deck of cards. The latter are great, from the stylized card back icons that tie into their character’s lore, to the clear text and stylized comic-style art on the front. Once it’s all set out on the table, the good stuff easily compensates for the dull board, making it quite an eye-catching spectacle.
Rules and How to Play
One of the big draws of the Unmatched series is that it’s simple to get going. Both players choose a character. Then, they decide on which board to use — one of them in this set has a novel secret passage mechanic — set up the figures in prescribed spaces, draw five cards, and it’s game on. In theory the game also works with four, playing as two teams of two, but it’s at its best as a head to head.
On your turn you take two actions, which can either be to draw a card and move, or to play an attack or scheme card. Melee characters can only attack adjacent spaces, whereas ranged ones can attack any spaces the same color as that in which the attacker is located. That is one of the reasons for the lackluster board game, and it's worth the trade off for the speed and clarity it brings to play.
If you’re attacked, you can play a defense card from your hand or not, as you choose, and you take the difference between the values in damage. That’s it. Last character standing wins. You now know how to play Unmatched. So: given the striking simplicity of the rules, how on earth does the series manage to leverage any kind of depth and variety?
The answer is in the cards. Each character has a unique deck and a special power. Some of them also have “sidekicks,” weaker fighters they can command alongside their main, such as Holmes’ dependable assistant Doctor Watson. The way each deck leverages those straightforward rules to give every character a unique play style is a thing of genius.
They’re all cross-compatible so it’s quite possible to have Bruce Lee facing off against Bigfoot.
Let’s stick with Holmes for an example. His special ability is that his card effects can’t be cancelled or blocked, a nod to his fearsome powers of planning. Many of his cards let him look at his opponent’s hand, giving a sense that Holmes is always one step ahead. Others let you use that knowledge to try and predict the values of your opponent’s cards, which feels like the process of deduction Holmes is famous for.
Between them, the duo don’t have many attack cards, but the ones they field are powerful. Again, this represents the way the characters are written: Holmes as a reluctant but skilled pugilist and Watson, who has ranged attacks, grudgingly using his army weapons if necessary. Between them, the cards in the deck bring the characters to life on the board as you play, without flavor text and with a bare minimum of exceptions and special rules.
All the decks in Unmatched: Cobble & Fog work the same extraordinary magic. Dr. Jekyll can choose to flip into the terrifying Mr. Hyde or back at the start of each turn. Only Jekyll can play the best defensive cards and only Hyde the best offensive ones, but moving as Hyde costs health. Dracula must coordinate with his three unholy progeny, all of them relatively fragile but with attacks that heal as they injure their targets. He also has cards that can lure and manipulate enemy figures.
At first, it seems the four are not well balanced. The Invisible Man, in particular, feels underpowered. He has three fog tokens on the board between which he can flit at will but he lacks big attack and defense plays. With practice however, things even up. His game is one of setting up and executing ambushes, then vanishing into the darkness.
Indeed, all four decks reveal hidden depths over repeat plays.
Indeed, all four decks reveal hidden depths over repeat plays. The basic rules alone offer some solid strategic hooks. Characters with sidekicks can try and box their enemies into undesirable board positions. With only two actions per turn, it’s hard to set up an attack without leaving yourself vulnerable to a counter. You’re also forced to strike a balance between drawing and playing cards while trying to keep a range of options in your hand.
When you add in the layers created by special powers and unique card decks, there are all sorts of strategic levers to work. It’s true that the game can be frustrating when you can’t quite draw the cards you need to move your game plan forward. But without that seed of randomness, the game would devolve into stale repetition instead of retaining some vibrancy over repeat plays.
That said, repetition remains the worst fault in Unmatched: Cobble & Fog. Again, like other games in the series, despite all the great work that’s gone into giving each character a distinct style, those simple mechanics can’t quite take all the weight. Individual matchups do begin to feel a little worn after several attempts. Fortunately, with four characters to choose from, you’ve got six distinct combinations to keep you going.
Where to Buy
The MSRP for Unmatched: Cobble & Fog is $39.99, but you can often find it on sale at the retailers below.
Every set in the Unmatched series is a masterclass in the art of doing a great deal with very little. So much so that it’d make them worth checking out even if it wasn’t for the fun tactical gameplay. But the bigger the series gets, the more fault lines appear in the game’s basic engine. Wonderland’s Alice, from Unmatched: Battle of Legends Volume One, for example, feels a bit like Dr. Jekyll since both have the ability to flip between aggressive and defensive stances.
Besides the ability to mix and match characters, another hallmark is the use of unique decks to give flavor and strategy to wildly different characters. And here, none of the sets do it so well as Unmatched: Cobble & Fog. With its iconic characters, each well realized with a distinct and thematic play style, it’s a fantastic place to start with the series, or to add to an existing collection.